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Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Words & Language Toolbox

Speak and hear your work for seamless writing

By Genevieve Belmaker

A friend told me he once heard a dinner speaker whose remarks were so disorganized and disjointed that at one point someone in the audience said quietly to those within earshot: “Let’s take up a collection and buy this guy a clue.”

Readers are like that audience. They want a clue. They want what they read to be stitched together with logic — effortless, streamlined, seamless.

Seamlessness is hard to come by in media writing. But it’s well worth the trouble. Seamless prose is silken prose. It’s purposeful, it's clear, and it speeds along without fit or spurt or herky-jerk.

In other words, seamless means readable, and as such, it’s right up there in importance with accuracy and clarity.

Consider:

At an especially stressful moment in their domestic life — they are in the midst of an escalating battle with the fraternity next door, about which more shortly — Mac and Kelly, a married couple with a cute (and notably quiet) baby daughter, have a fight.

The lead continues in this fashion, and the next paragraph begins:

This argument is a minor episode in a film (directed by Nicholas Stoller from a script by Andrew Jan Cohen and Brendan O’Brien) that has a lot of other things on its mind: marijuana, sex toys, Zac Efron’s muscles and enough pop-culture flotsam to dominate a year’s worth of pub trivia nights.

The film isn’t the only thing with too much on its mind. This review has the same problem. It’s written in a curious style constructed mostly of asides and is the antithesis of seamlessness. The reviewer seems unable to complete one thought before jumping to another. The result typifies fit-and-spurt writing:

• A glut of prepositional phrases

• Long clauses with dashes interrupting the sentence’s action

• Verb and object far from the subject

• Tangential content so ill-placed that it’s tucked within parentheses

The point of the lead seems to be that Mac and Kelly “have a fight.” But words intervene, and the point is delayed until sentence end. What intervenes, exactly? Stressful time. War with the neighbors (of which we’ll hear more). The couple has a baby girl. The baby is cute. (And quiet.)None of that is stitched together, seamlessly or otherwise.

How could or should that lead read? Beats the heck outta me. I mean: What’s the story about What’s the hook, the focus? Give the reader a clue. Should it begin: “Mac and Kelly are having a fight”? Or: “Mac and Kelly are at a stressful moment in their relationship”? Or: “Mac and Kelly are battling with their neighbors”?

Writing means making choices. Another rough ride:

An ambitious plan, complete with malls, superblocks, and an amphitheater, as well as underground parking, for possible redevelopment of the central business district, was unveiled Tuesday night.

Again we see how intervention can push verbs far from their subjects. That distance is worsened here because the passive verb “was unveiled” hides the subject. Less bumpy:

“An architectural consulting firm unveiled a proposal for redeveloping the city’s central business district at the city council meeting Tuesday. The ambitious plan includes pedestrian malls, an amphitheater and underground parking.”

Another:

At the helm of Citigroup for just a year and a half, Michael L. Corbat has been trying to transform into a boring bank a global giant that has been plagued in the past by blowups and bailouts.

Herky-jerky. Again, a subordinate clause delays the sentence’s all-important subject. Imagine approaching someone and blurting: “At the helm of Citigroup for just a year and a half ...” Do we talk this way? Nope.

More awkwardness: a giant has been plagued “in the past.” Of course it was in the past. What else? And why “boring”? Is there something “boring” about an institution knowing how to manage risk? The writer probably means “plain vanilla” or “staid” or the like. And if he does, that’s what he should say.

Finally, the syntax is weird. Corbat has been “trying to transform into a boring bank”? Good luck with that.

Smoother:

“Michael L. Corbat has spent his first 18 months as CEO of Citigroup trying to tame the behavior of a global banking giant plagued by blowups and bailouts.”

How can we achieve seamless writing? The best way is to read the work aloud and listen carefully for hitches in cadence, ease and speed. Is the passage quick and smooth, or plodding and rough? Hearing the work will tell you.

Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing” and a mystery novel, “Chalk Line,” among other works. E-mail: plarocque@sbcglobal.net. Blog and website: paulalarocque.com

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